This Is Tim Cook’s Apple

Apple CEO Tim Cook was on stage at D11, AllThingsD’s most recent marquee annual tech conference, and he had a lot to talk about, given recent activity with corporate tax issues, stock price, a long dearth of new products coming out of Cupertino and more. But a lot of what was most interesting about the appearance wasn’t what Cook said about the company’s well-documented challenges; rather, it was what he had to say about the future and changes to the company’s operating strategy that provided the most insight into what Apple is now.

Opening APIs

Apple plans to open up more APIs in the future for third-party developers building software on its platform. Cook said that there’s definitely room for Apple to become more flexible in this regard.

“On the general topic of opening up APIs, I think you’ll see us open up more in the future,” he said, “but not to the degree that we put the customer at risk of having a bad experience. So there’s always a fine line to walk there, or maybe not so fine.”

Cook didn’t seem to be all that receptive to the idea that Chat Heads-style system-wide access would be on the horizon for iOS, but he did suggest that there would be more developers could do. Android is known to be much more accepting of system-wide changes like replacing default apps including the built-in software keyboard, browser, email client and even launcher. Cook’s comments suggested that we might, for example, finally see other software developers allowed to address complaints around the iOS system keyboard, for instance.

On the other hand, Apple always introduces new APIs for developers with each new version of iOS, and makes public some that were previously private. So in some ways, this is business as usual. But based on Cook’s statements, I think we’ll see a loosening of API restrictions that’s quite different from what we’ve seen in the past.

Acquisition Strategy

Cook has talked about the Apple acquisition strategy in the past, when he discussed it at length during a keynote speech at the Goldman Sachs investor conference in February this year. What he said last night expands on that, reiterating that a purchase of a larger company is not at all out of the question, but he also shed some more light on how it’s actually been buying companies this year, and how that differs from its strategy in the past.

Cook said that Apple has acquired nine companies since its fiscal year began in October of 2012, which means the pace is up considerably from the one company it would buy every two to three months during all of fiscal 2012. The renewed vigor when it comes to strategic acquisitions is a sign that Apple under Cook might be more inclined to make purchases when opportunity knocks; yet at the same time, Apple isn’t talking publicly about most of those purchases or even revealing their names, so it’s hard to gauge exactly where it’s spending its dollars in this regard.

One thing’s clear, however: Cook’s Apple isn’t afraid to arm itself with frequent company purchases, and this is very different from what we’ve seen in the past. It could be that this is a period of intense activity preceding some specific R&D project, perhaps into wearable tech or TVs, both of which Cook also addressed at D11, but we’ll have to wait a while to see the long-term impact of this staged ramp up in M&A activity.

Speaking Of New Device Categories…

Cook didn’t say much about new products, but he did reveal that Apple is thinking very hard about TV, and that there’s a “grand vision” of this at Apple, which is designed to help update the experience of watching TV and bring it in line with modern digital experiences. Cook said that they’ve answered “some” of the problems around the existing Apple TV, but hinted that we’ll see much more to come.

As to when, he wouldn’t say, and declined to answer a question about whether it might come before the end of the year. The current Apple TV has been a great “learning experience” for Apple, Cook says, and that makes sense; it’s always been described as a hobby by Apple execs, but it’s more like an extended period of market research with an incredibly far-reaching audience. Clearly, Apple has been paying attention to its high notes and low notes, and that could give it a leg up in reinventing television over competitors like Microsoft and Google.

Also on the subject of new device categories, Cook discussed wearable tech, suggesting that it’s “a very important branch of the tree” and said the iPhone and iPad group will be very involved in it going forward. But he also said he hasn’t seen anything that impressive in wearable computing to date – including Google Glass. “To convince people that they have to wear something, it has to be incredible,” he said, inferring that nothing yet meets that definition.

On the subject of a watch, Cook suggested that watches themselves have fallen out of favor with younger generations mainly because they don’t offer that kind of incredible experience. Apple has done this sort of thing in the past, talking about device categories that aren’t compelling because they’re not doing something for the consumer that they can’t get elsewhere. They’ve talked about it with larger phones, thin and light notebooks and more, and ended up delivering a take that truly impressed. In short, you can bet Apple is working on these things, but you can also bet they won’t come out of the oven at all if Apple feels they’re half-baked.

Cook’s Apple

Overall, we got a picture of an Apple that perhaps takes more cues from its customers when it comes to product roadmap; one that is more willing to venture afield to pick up the talent and expertise it needs to accomplish its goals; and one that’s more open to helping third-party developers supplement the core iOS experience. Apple has also been observed to be opening up more regarding its public relations outreach and media communications, which were once famously tough to crack.

All of that said, Apple is still more like its past self than a Google, a Yahoo! or a Microsoft, for instance. But Cooks’ subtle changes in direction are becoming less subtle with time, and now we just have to sit back and watch to see what comes out of that quiet rerouting.